Frequently Asked Questions (adapted from Alley Cat Allies):

What is a feral cat?

A feral cat is a cat who has either never had any contact with people or her contact with people has diminished over time. She is not socialized to people and survives on her own outdoors. Most feral cats are not likely to ever become lap cats or enjoy living indoors.

Outdoor cats have existed alongside humans for 10,000 years. They are not a new phenomenon. Feral cats are members of the same species as pet cats—and are therefore protected under state animal anti-cruelty laws. The difference between feral cats and your pet cat is that they have had little or no contact with people, and so they are wary of us, and cannot be adopted. They have a home—outdoors. They live and thrive in every landscape, from the inner city to rural farmland. Since feral cats are not adoptable, they should not be brought to animal pounds and shelters, because there they will likely be killed. Learn more about feral cats.

What is the difference between a stray cat and a feral cat?

Stray cats are socialized to people and can be adopted into homes, but feral cats are not socialized to people and are happy living outdoors.

A stray cat:

  • Is a cat who has been socialized to people at some point in her life, but has left or lost her indoor home, as well as most human contact and dependence.
  • Can become feral as her contact with humans dwindles.
  • Can under the right circumstances become a pet cat once again. Stray cats that are re-introduced to a home after living outdoors may require a period of time to re-acclimate; they may be frightened and wary after spending time outside away from people.

A feral cat:

  • Is a cat who has either never had any contact with humans or her contact with humans has diminished over time. She is not socialized to people and survives on her own outdoors. Most feral cats are not likely to ever become lap cats or enjoy living indoors.
  • Can have kittens who can be socialized at an early age and adopted into homes.

Find out more using our illustrated guide: Feral and Stray Cats—An Important Difference.

Where do feral cats come from?

Contrary to some common misconceptions, feral cats are not a new phenomenon, and they are not cast-offs from irresponsible pet owners. Domestic cats came into existence about 10,000 years ago, when humans began farming. According to scientists, cats are one of the only animals who domesticated themselves—choosing to live near humans to feed on the rodents attracted by stored grain. Evolutionary research shows that the natural habitat of cats is outdoors in close proximity to humans—and that is how they have lived ever since. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1940s—and the invention of cat litter—that "indoors only" for cats was even a concept.

What is Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR)?

Trap-Neuter-Return is the humane, effective approach for feral cats. Feral cats are humanely trapped, spayed or neutered, vaccinated, and eartipped (the universal symbol of a neutered and vaccinated cat), and then returned to their outdoor home. Socialized cats and kittens are adopted into homes. The colony’s population stabilizes—no more kittens! Trap-Neuter-Return improves their lives and their relations with the community: the behaviors and stresses associated with mating stop.

Learn more.
Read the scientific evidence showing the benefits of TNR. Learn how to conduct TNR.

What is an ‘eartip’?

We use the word “eartip” to describe when a small portion of the tip of a feral cat’s left ear is surgically removed during neuter surgery, to denote that the cat has been neutered and vaccinated. Eartipping is done while the cat is anesthetized and is not painful for the cat. Eartipping is the most effective way to identify neutered feral cats from a distance, to make sure they are not trapped or undergo surgery a second time.

Learn more.

Isn’t it unsafe for feral cats to live outside?

The outdoors is the natural habitat for feral cats, and empirical evidence indicates they can live long and healthy lives: a 2006 study published in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery found that of 103,643 stray and feral cats examined in spay/neuter clinics in six states from 1993 to 2004, less than 1% of those cats needed to be euthanized due to debilitating conditions, trauma, or infectious diseases.

In addition, the lifespan of feral cats compares favorably with the lifespan of pet cats. A long-term study (published in theJournal of the American Veterinary Medical Association in 2003) of a Trap-Neuter-Return program noted that 83% of the cats present at the end of the observation period had been there for more than six years—meaning that the cats’ lifespans were comparable to the mean lifespan of 7.1 years for pet cats.

Feral cat caregivers can take steps to make feral cats more comfortable, like neutering them, feeding them, and providing shelter. These steps promote the cats’ well-being, improve their relationships with neighbors, and assist the people who live nearby to understand and co-exist with the cats. But most feral cats don’t require intervention beyond Trap-Neuter-Return.

Learn more about feral cat health.

Why can’t feral cats be socialized and then adopted into homes?

A feral cat is a cat who has either never had any contact with people or her contact with people has diminished over time. They are not socialized to people and cannot be touched, except sometimes by a regular caregiver.

The ideal window for socializing feral kittens is 12 weeks of age or younger—beyond 12 weeks, feral cats may never socialize completely or at all. As a result, we do not recommend attempting to socialize feral cats older than 12 weeks—it is dangerous and stressful for both you and the cat. Feral cats live healthy lives in their outdoors homes and the best thing you can do to help them is Trap-Neuter-Return. Outdoor cats that are friendly and socialized to people are called stray cats, and they can be re-homed. Find out more using our illustrated guide: Feral and Stray Cats—An Important Difference.

What happens to feral cats when they are brought to most shelters?

Because feral cats are not socialized to people, they are unadoptable as pets. In most shelters and pounds in the US, unadoptable animals are killed. In fact, 70% of all cats who enter shelters are killed there, according to the most reliable data available. That number jumps to close to 100% for feral cats.

Many shelters now realize that allowing feral cats to enter their doors is a death sentence and that Trap-Neuter-Return is the humane approach for their care. In recognition of this, some pounds and shelters have a “no feral cats accepted” policy, as well as a policy of returning eartipped cats to the place where they were initially trapped. Unfortunately, there are more pounds and shelters that still kill feral cats—some as soon as the cat enters the facility. Feral cats live full, healthy lives outdoors, but are killed in shelters.

Learn more.

Why doesn't removing feral cats from an area work?

Animal control’s traditional approach for feral cats—catching and killing—is endless and cruel, and it does not keep an area free of cats. Cats choose to reside in a location for two reasons: there is a food source (intended or not) and shelter. Because of a phenomenon called the vacuum effect, when cats are removed from a location, survivors of the catch and kill effort and new cats who have moved in breed to capacity. Cats have been living outside alongside people for 10,000 years—a fact that cannot be changed.

Learn more about the vacuum effect.

What can I do to help feral cats?

Alley Cat Allies offers extensive and detailed online resources for cat care in the Care for Cats section of our website.

  • Our How to Conduct Trap-Neuter-Return will teach you how to perform Trap-Neuter-Return.
  • Our Colony Care Guide will provide tips for feeding, sheltering, and providing ongoing care.
  • Our Community Relations Center provides you with the tools and information to help you bring about widespread change in your community, and ensure that it continues to be a safe and happy home for both the cats and the neighbors.
  • Our Veterinary Resource Center is the place to go to learn more about the special veterinary approach for feral cats that takes into account their unique needs and the fact that they are unsocialized to people.
  • Our Socialized Cat Guide will help if you have found kittens or socialized cats.

You can also find local help with our Feral Friends Network. Request a list of Feral Friends in your area using our Email Assistance Form. The Feral Friends Network is a nationwide database of individuals, organizations, and veterinarians who can provide guidance about Trap-Neuter-Return, borrowing equipment, and obtaining affordable neuter services for feral cats.

Learn more about caring for outdoor cats

I found a friendly outdoor cat, how do I find her a home?

First, do you know the difference between stray cats and feral cats? Stray cats are socialized to people and can be adopted into homes, but feral cats are not socialized to people and are happy living outdoors. To do what’s best for the cat, you need to know the difference!

  • Find out by using our illustrated guide: Feral and Stray Cats—An Important Difference.
  • If the cat you have found is a stray or if you find socialized cats or kittens during Trap-Neuter-Return, you can place them in adoptive homes. Visit our Socialized Cat Guide for simple step-by-step instructions for finding a loving, permanent new home for adoptable cats.
  • If the cat appears frightened or anxious, but not feral, visit our Faux Ferals page to learn how to bring out her friendly personality and maximize her chances of finding a good home.
  • When deciding what to do with the cats you have found, it’s important to know that if you take a cat to an animal shelter, most shelters will likely kill the cat. Seventy percent of cats entering shelters are killed, and that number jumps to nearly 100% of feral cats and kittens. If you are still considering a shelter, always ask for the adoption procedures, typical duration of stay, and euthanasia policies before deciding if you should take a cat there. Even then, it is still at the shelter’s discretion to euthanize for any reason.

Good luck finding your friendly cat a home!

I have found feral kittens. What do I do?

When you come across kittens living outdoors, you may wonder whether it’s better to take them into your home or leave them outside with mom. Whatever you decide, it should be in the kittens’ best interest. Here are some things to think about:

You may also find it helpful to talk to Feral Friends in your area. Our Feral Friends Network is a nationwide database of individuals, organizations, and veterinarians who provide guidance about Trap-Neuter-Return, borrowing equipment, and where to find affordable neuter services for feral cats and kittens. You can request a list of Feral Friends by filling out our Email Assistance Form. After you complete the form you will immediately be emailed information tailored to your specific request for help. Even if the Alley Cat Allies’ Feral Friends Network members listed in your area cannot help directly, they may be able to point you in the right direction.

I want to get some stray and feral cats neutered, how do I conduct Trap-Neuter-Return?

Trap-Neuter-Return is a great way to help the cats in your community; it improves the cats’ health and stabilizes the colony while allowing them to live out their lives outdoors.

To successfully trap, neuter, vaccinate, eartip, and return feral cats to their outdoor home, you need a plan. Our guidelines for humane trapping, available in the How to Conduct Trap-Neuter-Return section of our website will get you on your way!

There you will find:

If you’re looking for help at the local level, you should check out our Feral Friends Network—volunteers who have agreed to provide local advice and guidance to others working to implement Trap-Neuter-Return for feral cats. To request a list of Alley Cat Allies’ Feral Friends, please return to our Email Assistance Form.

I don’t want cats in my yard. How can I deter cats and peacefully live with them in my neighborhood?

Thank you for searching out peaceful solutions to living with cats!

It’s important to understand outdoor cat behaviors and what draws cats to certain areas. We have simple solutions to divert outdoor cats away from places they are not wanted! Learn how to carry out these tips in How to Live with Cats in Your Neighborhood or order this resource as a full-color brochure. You can also visit the Preventative Planning page in ourCommunity Relations Resource Center for more information.

I need to relocate a cat/colony. Should I do this? How do I do this?

Relocating feral cats is not the “happy ending” many people may think it is. The truth is, it’s a complicated, risky, and time-consuming plan that rips frightened cats from their home—with no guarantee they will stay in the new location.

In high-tension situations, calls to “just move the cats” are extremely common. It can be tempting to offer the opposition an option they will easily accept, like relocation. But remember that you are always working towards a solution that is in the best interest of the cats—and relocation is not. Because of the negative impacts on the cats, relocation should be your last option,something to be considered only after you have exhausted all other possibilities and you truly believe that the cats’ lives are in imminent danger if they remain where they are.

A far better course of action is to resolve the problems that are causing the cats to be forced out of their home. Visit ourCommunity Relations Resource Center to learn how to reach a compromise that allows the cats to remain in their original colony location by:

  • Using peer mediation techniques 
  • Negotiating with decision makers
  • Offering bargaining chips to reach a compromise
  • Handling threats to cats

If you are considering relocating cats because their caregivers are no longer able to provide care, visit our Planning for Substitute Colony Care page for recruitment tips on finding new caregivers.

If you have considered all of the above and believe that relocation is the only option that is in the best interest of the cats, follow the steps in the Safe Relocation of Feral Cats section of our website.

Can you give me advice for how to care for a sick or injured cat?

If you come across a sick or injured outdoor cat, there are steps you can take to get the cat the medical attention she needs. But since this cat is likely feral (and therefore fearful of people), you need a plan that will keep her safe and calm.

Your first course of action:

  • Find a veterinary facility with experience treating and handling feral cats and with an understanding of feral cat behavior and Trap-Neuter-Return. To find out if there are any feral-friendly veterinarians near you, request a list of Feral Friends by returning to our Email Assistance Form. Or, you can provide your veterinarian with information about the proper handling and treatment of feral cats by visiting our Feral Cat Veterinary Resource Center.
  • Once you’ve found a veterinarian, follow our steps for safely and humanely trapping cats, including those who are sick or injured, in the How to Conduct Trap-Neuter-Return section of our website.
  • You will also have to consider what you will do in the event that the cat needs long-term care. Make sure you have an idea of where she can be held while she’s recovering or receiving medical treatment. And, have a plan for providing these things financially. Our financial resources for cat care can help.
  • Ask about veterinarians’ euthanasia policy. Unfortunately, veterinarians who have not been trained to work with feral cats often suggest euthanizing feral cats rather than treating them. Please be aware of your veterinarian’s feral cat policies before taking cats there. Alley Cat Allies’ philosophy is that an animal should only be euthanized in the event of terminal illness or untreatable injury. Learn more about The Difference between Euthanasia and Killing.

I think someone poisoned/injured my cat(s). What can I do?

 Physical threats—or worse, actual violence or cruelty—toward any member of your feral cat colony present a serious and frightening situation for you and for the cats. However, it is important to stay focused and calm—that will help you better protect the cats. Learn more details about the steps you should take (outlined below) in our Community Relations Resource Center.

Intentionally hurting a cat is animal cruelty, and it is illegal in every state and the District of Columbia. Direct threats to cats should be taken seriously.

If someone has physically harmed your cats:

When a cat you care for is harmed or killed, it can be very difficult to know what to do. There are steps you can take to protect the cats remaining in the colony and bring justice for the cat who is injured or who you have lost.

  • First, if the cat is injured, trap her and take her to the veterinarian immediately. Find a feral-friendly veterinarian - A local veterinary member of Alley Cat Allies' Feral Friends Network can help with an injured cat and may be able to help you determine cause of death.
  • Next, call the police and begin gathering as much evidence as possible. Make sure you take pictures and document as much evidence as you can find—write all of your observations in a journal and include dates and times. We know how difficult this will be if the cat was killed, but you must document how you found her with photographs. If at all possible, get a necropsy (an autopsy for animals) performed on the cat in order to find out the cause of death. Most states have a state laboratory that performs post-mortem tests on animals. Costs vary, but may be worthwhile if evidence aids in prosecution of the case.

At this point you may want to involve a lawyer. In order to protect the remaining cats you may consider installing a video camera on your property in order to have documentation of activity at all times of the day. This would not only aid with evidence in future cases, but could also serve as a deterrent for anyone coming onto the property with ill intentions. If the situation has escalated to the point where you want to involve a lawyer, these tips can help find one. Arm yourself with knowledge about local government structures as well as how to learn about your local ordinances.

How do I build/where can I find shelters for my outdoor cats?

 Building a shelter for feral cats can keep them safe from the elements and help you control their location and deter them from neighbors’ properties.

At www.alleycat.org/BuildAShelter, you’ll find instructions on how to build your own Alley Cat Allies’ inexpensive do-it-yourself wooden shelter, as well as Feral Cat Shelter Options, Alley Cat Allies' list of shelter ideas from organizations and individuals all over the country sorted by ease of set-up.

How do I build/where can I find feeding stations for my outdoor cats?

Feeding stations are relatively easy to construct and create a place where the cats regularly come for food, which helps with trapping and controlling their location. Check out our Colony Care Guide for ideas and instructions for shelters you can build yourself. You’ll also learn where to place your feeding stations to keep the cats safe and deter insects.

Learn more about advocating for cats

The property manager in my community/at a local store/office park wants the cats removed. What do I do? (conflicts with property management)

When a property manager or animal control agency wants to trap and remove cats, your goal is to try to protect the cats. Learn more details about the steps you should take (outlined below) in our Community Relations Resource Center.

  • Set up a Meeting - Call to schedule a meeting with the owner, property manager, or animal control director; be professional and diplomatic.
  • Prepare for the Meeting –The key to any response is to remain calm at all times and to make sure that any comments you make are grounded in truth and fact. When preparing, always look for the positive way to present your case. Learn more about how to prepare for a meeting.
    • Prepare for Negotiation - Use these negotiation tips for finding common ground and a resolution.
    • Mediate with your Opponents - Find out what your opponent’s specific concerns are relating to the cats and provide possible solutions for them. Many times concerns or complaints can be easily addressed.
    • Use Bargaining Chips – Part of negotiation is offering services in exchange for getting what you want for the cats. This list of services could help you seal the deal.
    • Educate Property Managers - Use these educational materials and outreach tools to help you explain to the property manager, or your local animal control agency, what you’re doing and why.
    • Get Input from Local Feral Cat and Trap-Neuter-Return Experts – Contact a member of Alley Cat Allies’ Feral Friends Network. These feral-friendly organizations and individuals may be able to provide you with further advice and guidance. Request a list of Feral Friends Network member in your area.animal-related ordinances.